Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Five Fascinating Facts about Mughal India

Inside the Diwan-I-Khas (Hall of Private Audiences) in the Lal Qil'ah (Red Fort)
Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi), India - 2007
If you ask anyone outside South Asia what they know about the Mughal rulers of India, they will probably mention Shah Jehan who was responsible for building the Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.  Or some, like my daughter, might actually reach back into their memories of high school AP World History to recall Akbar the Great, who was included in Time Magazine's list of the top 25 rulers of the world. But if you have spent some time in India, as I have, you will understand the tangible impact the Mughal rulers and the resultant intermingling of Islamic and Hindu cultures has had on India, as witnessed by its art, architecture, language and cuisine.

The Mughal dynasty can be traced back to a Turkish chieftain named Babur who was based in Afganistan and invaded India in the early 16th century, establishing a foothold in the cities of Delhi and Agra. During his son Humayun's reign, their empire in India was lost, but Humayun's son, Akbar gained it all back. He and his descendants then continued to expand their territory.  At the height of Mughal power in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Akbar's great grandson Aurangzeb's empire spanned over 1.25 million square miles and included a quarter of the world's population. By the mid 18th century, however, their power had begun to disintegrate. Revolts, dissatisfaction with oppressive rule, invasions by the Persians and the Afghans, all weakened the Mughal empire, opening the door to British control by the mid 19th century.

Arab Sarai, Humayun's Tomb complex
(built to house Persian craftsmen working on Humayun's Tomb)
Delhi, India - 2007
So here are my top Five Fascinating Facts about the Mughals of India:

1) The name "Mughal" can be traced back to their homeland in the Central Asian steppes, an area conquered by Genghis Khan and later known as "Moghulistan" or "Land of the Mongols". The early Mughals spoke the Chagatai language (Chagatai was Genghis Khan's son) and continued to practice Turko-Mongol traditions. They greatly admired Persian culture so India became the seat for the dissemination of Islam and Persian literary and high culture throughout South Asia.

2) The language Urdu, spoken today in Pakistan and parts of India, was developed during the Mughal reign. Persian was the official language of the empire, but the over time it merged with Hindi and was eventually given a new name: Urdu. Urdu and Hindi are mutually intelligible, but Urdu's vocabulary is heavily drawn from Persian while Hindi draws from Sanskrit.  Hindi is written in Devanagari script and Urdu utilizes a Perso-Arabic script known as Nastaliq. Being literate in Urdu allows one to understand Hindi, but not read it.  Conversely one would be able to read Arabic, but not understand it.

Agra Fort Battlements
Agra, India - 2007
3) There is much to admire in Akbar the Great (1542 - 1605, third Mughal Emperor), even by today's standards. He ascended the throne at the age of 13 and was illiterate, but he was a great patron of the arts. An orthodox Moslem, he advocated religious tolerance and enjoyed philosophical discourse. One of his most trusted friends was his Grand Vizier, Birbal, a Brahmin Hindu by birth who impressed Akbar with his loyalty, wisdom and quick wit. Birbal belonged to Akbar's inner council of nine advisors known as Navaratna ("nine jewels" in Sanskrit) and their relationship is the source of many humorous stories that have become part of Indian folklore. If you are at all interested in the portrayal of legendary figures in popular culture, you may enjoy the movie Jodhaa Akbar, a sweeping epic that centers on the romance between Akbar and his Hindu Rajput Princess Jodhabai (while artfully ignoring all of Akbar's other wives). The film was produced and directed by Ashutosh Gowariker who also directed the Academy Award-nominated film Lagaan.

Cupolas of the Agra Fort
(The Khas Mahal is rendered in white marble and the Akbari and Jahangiri Mahal are in red Sandstone)
Agra, India - 2007
The Musamman Burj within the Agra Fort
(where Shah Jehan was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb for the last seven years of his life)
Agra, India - 2007
4) Ruthless impatience to rule (that did not stop at imprisonment or even fratricide) is a recurring theme among the Mughals. It is believed that the poison leading to Akbar the Great's declining health can be traced to his son Jehangir. Jehangir's third son, Shah Jehan (1592 -1666), solidified power at the start of his reign by killing his brothers and all male members of their families. Shah Jehan's son, Aurangzeb (1618 - 1707) took the throne after fighting his brothers and imprisoning his father.

The Taj Mahal
Agra, India - 2007
5) Peacock Throne, in which the famous Koh-i-noor diamond was placed, is the name originally given to the Mughal throne.  In addition to the Koh-i-noor, the throne was lavishly embellished with precious rubies and emeralds, and pearls.  In 1738 Nader Shah Afshari invaded the Mughal Empire and took the throne back with him to Persia. Though the throne has since disappeared, the term Peacock throne is often used in reference to the throne of the Persian kings.

Inside the Diwan-I-Khas (Hall of Private Audiences) in the Lal Qil'ah (Red Fort)
Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi), India
Inside the Diwan-I-Khas (Hall of Private Audiences) in the Lal Qil'ah (Red Fort)
Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi), India
Wikipedia (Mughal Empire)
Wikipedia (Peacock Throne)

All of the images posted here are also available for purchase as 8x10 and 5x7 fine art prints and A2 size greeting cards (all printed on archival water color paper) at Be sure to send me a message if there is something you'd like that you don't see listed, or if you'd like a custom size or item, as I truly enjoy creating one of a kind items that hold special meaning. Thanks!!